Babel in Biblia:

The Tower in Ancient Literature

by Jim Rovira

 

July 1998

 

 

Genesis is a book of origins, explaining the origins of everything from the universe to local landmarks. The Babel account of Genesis 11:1-9 describes the origin of diversity in human culture and language. This story is relatively unique in Semitic literature with parallel accounts being the Enuma Elish, a story about the building of Babylon and its temple tower, and a Sumerian story which tells of a time when all people spoke, or will speak, the same language. In contrast, the Biblical accounts of both creation and the flood are paralleled in Egyptian, Babylonian, Sumerian and Phoenician literature.

A Sumerian epic entitled Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta is the closest parallel to the Genesis story. It speaks of a golden age when “Man had no rival,” and “the whole universe, the people in unison, to Enlil in one tongue spoke.” But,

Enki. . .the leader of the gods
changed the speech in their mouths
brought contention into it,
into the speech of man that (until then) had been one.

Some scholars translate this text so it presents a future hope that all humanity will one day speak the same language--Sumerian, of course. Either way, in Enmerkar diversity of languages is a matter of competition between the gods Enlil and Enki within the context of a polytheistic belief system.

In contrast, the Genesis account presents diversity of language as a divine judgment upon human arrogance. The Tower was the world’s first “skyscraper,” a structure built for the same reasons today’s monoliths are erected: “Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top to the sky to make for ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” The height of the tower itself is representative of the most infantile expressions of human pride and competitiveness; even the architects designing Gothic cathedrals of bygone centuries competed to build the tallest, while modern architects compete similarly in today’s cities. Building a tower “with its top to the sky” symbolizes humanity’s attempt to ascend to heaven, ostensibly to take the place of God, the Tower itself being a visible representation of humanity’s ambitions to attain divine status. In comparison, today’s skyscrapers represent a concentration of wealth and power, the uppermost level being reserved for the wealthiest, most powerful individual.

The Divine response to the Tower of Babel stood in direct opposition to human planning, evident even in the choice of words used to describe God’s activity. “Come, let us go down and mix up their languages,” stands in opposition to, “Come, let us build for ourselves a tower. . .”. “Lest we be scattered over the face of the earth,” stands in opposition to, “lest nothing they plot to do be beyond them.” Collective humanity is portrayed as a Faustus character, striving to reach the very limits of human capability, even surpassing them. This presentation, of course, makes the Divine out to be an insecure Deity using supernatural power to stifle a precocious humanity. The real problem, I think, is not with human ambition but with the direction our ambitions take, for humanity had already been elevated to near Divine status earlier in the Genesis account.

Creation progresses in Genesis from a formless, void earth to an orderly universe operating on cycles of day and night, culminating in an earth teeming with life. At each stage of the process God called into being light, the skies, dry land, sea and plant life, land animals, and finally human beings. “Let there be. . .” was the operative phrase; with each declaration God called into being that which was to be created. At the last stage of the process God created Adam and Eve, commanding them to tend to the Garden, be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over all the animals. In Genesis 2, Adam names the animals. By doing so he took his place alongside God, imitating God’s creative activity. Just as God “named” into existence all of creation, Adam names all the animals, defining their identity and place in the world.

The question remains, “If Adam and Eve were created to rule the entire earth, what is the problem with human ambition?” Human ambition as expressed in the building of the Tower is an ambition spreading upward instead of outward, to the skies instead of across the face of the earth. God commanded Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it,” so all of humanity located in a single tower stood in opposition to the Divine plan for humankind. Since the earth is the domain of humanity, and the skies the domain of God, building a tower to house all humankind represents human striving to supplant God--and not just individual human striving to supplant God, but collective human striving. “Let us build. . .” is the motif of the Tower, there is no Nimrod to serve as a great leader of men. Not yet. God’s remedy for human pride was to confuse human language and scatter humanity across the face of the earth.

Interestingly, diversity of human culture and language has therefore been established by God. But at the same time it is depicted as a stopgap measure, like a dam holding back the waters of human rebellion. Diversity in purely negative terms means division, and division has been established to limit human potential while humankind is in rebellion to God. However, following the theme of diversity throughout the Biblical record, a final reunion of all humankind is eagerly anticipated at the end of history. Both Isaiah 65 and the book of Revelation promise a new heavens and a new earth in which old animosities have been destroyed, “The wolf and the lamb will feed together,” and all humanity is gathered together before God, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.” The New Testament presents the Church as an early realization of this future promise. Acts chapter 2 records the gathered disciples speaking in languages they did not know for the benefit of a crowd gathered from even the most distant regions of the Roman Empire, perhaps as a reversal of the Divine judgment at the Tower of Babel. Paul writes in the book of Galatians (chapter 3) that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, you are all one in Christ Jesus,” and establishes the principle of unity in diversity in 1 Corinthians 12. Diversity of culture is both God ordained and God reversed; humanity is dislocated apart from God, and reunited within God.

The tower was named “Babel” after God intervened to frustrate human ambition. “Babel” is Hebrew for “mixed up, confused.” But Babylonian, a sister language to Hebrew, understands “babel” to mean “the gate of the god.” For the story of the Tower of Babel is not just the story of the origins of human languages, but the story of the origin of one of the two great Biblical cities, Babylon. The other great Biblical city is, of course, Jerusalem, each representing opposing streams in human history and standing in a different relationship to God. Babylon’s origins are in a tower built to reach the heavens, Jerusalem is the city of peace in which the temple was built, the dwelling place of God’s presence. One is representative of humanity united against God, the other houses the focal point of worship for Israel. These cities are laden with symbolism throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, but the full import of them both are best described in the Book of Revelation.

John represents the city of Babylon in Revelation 17-18 as a prostitute riding a scarlet beast, which in turn is sitting on many waters. As cryptic as the book of Revelation can be, most imagery is explained fairly clearly within the stream of the narrative. The woman is “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth,” and on her forehead was written the following title:

MYSTERY
BABYLON THE GREAT
THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES
AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH

Within Revelation 17-18, the woman is associated with luxury, power, fame, the occult, sexual immorality, and pride, but the overwhelming association is with wealth. It is kings, merchants, and sea captains who mourn her overthrow (while keeping at a safe distance) because the wealth and luxury they had enjoyed from her are gone. The narrative of Revelation 17 tells us the “many waters” represent collective humanity, while the beast upon which the woman rides represents political power, ultimately the power of the antichrist. This is shrewd social analysis as well as Divine revelation; all that is Babylon rides upon political power, which rests upon all humankind. The woman was also drunk, drunk on the blood of the saints she had martyred. Babylon and Jerusalem are eternally opposed, and the overthrow of the one means the exaltation of the other.

John's depiction of the Prostitute on the Beast isn't intended as prophecy of the future, but as a description of the present--both his present and all future "presents" until the time of the Prostitute's overthrow. The Tower is capitalism with its trade in the “bodies and souls of men” for commerce and profit (Revelation 18:13). It is philosophical Marxism that seeks to supplant God so that humankind can “revolve around itself as its own true sun.” It is cruel and bloody, heartless and pleasure oriented, and all those who participate in the world today feed this system and suffer under it. The Divine response predicted in both the Christian and Jewish Scriptures points toward another overthrow, the next one a final one, to establish a New Jerusalem.

 

Jim Rovira can be reached at [email protected]